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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

'Capitol Talk:' Fox Enters Gov Race; Infrastructure Debate Enters Round 3

Capitol Talk is MTPR's weekly legislative news and analysis program. MTPR's Sally Mauk is joined by Lee Newspapers State Bureau Chief Holly Michels and UM Political Science Professor and Mansfield Center Fellow Rob Saldin.
Capitol Talk: MTPR's Weekly Legislative Analysis Program

Another Republican joins the 2020 race for governor. Republicans may be open to borrowing money for infrastructure projects — with a catch. A proposal for the state to buy a coal-fired power plant gets a rocky reception. Why passing new taxes could get harder. And a new poll shows the power of independent voters in Montana. Learn more now on "Capitol Talk" with Sally Mauk, Rob Saldin and Corin Cates-Carney.

Sally Mauk: Welcome to Capitol Talk, our weekly legislative analysis program. I'm Sally Mauk and I'm joined by Montana Public Radio Capitol Reporter Corin Cates-Carney, who's filling in this week for Holly Michels, and University of Montana political science professor and Mansfield Center Fellow Rob Saldin.

And Rob, another Republican made an early entry into the 2020 governor's race this week. Attorney General Tim Fox joined Secretary of State Corey Stapleton in the race, and no one's surprised

Rob Saldin: Yup Sally, this was widely anticipated. Fox has had his eye on a run for governor for years. He's termed out of his current job as attorney general so this is a natural step. He has a pretty high profile in the state. He should be a formidable candidate.

You know we are seeing this Republican field of candidates for governor taking shape here very early. Fox is the fourth to announce. He's certainly the biggest name so far, and depending on how things shake out he may end up being the biggest name in the field period.

SM: In an interview with MTPR news director Eric Whitney, Fox had this answer to why he thinks Republicans have lost the last four governor's races.

"It's important, I think, for those statewide-elected Republicans to stay in their incumbencies. They're all able to run for re-election. It's important that we hold those offices. If there's been any one thing that has, I think, contributed to keeping Montana Republicans from winning the governor's office, it's this contested primary issue."

SM: And he goes on to say that the candidates in the Republican primary end up bloodying each other so much it hurts them in the general. But I think when he's talking about holding their incumbencies, I think he's got a certain other Republican in mind when he says that Rob.

RS: Yeah, yeah. Who could he be referring to here, right? Obviously this is in reference to Corey Stapleton, the secretary of state who is not termed out. He could run again for re-election to that position and Fox seems to have an opinion about what he ought to do. These two have sparred publicly several times in recent months. So these guys, it seems like at least from what we can tell publicly, are not friends.

And Fox is certainly onto something about these contested primaries. I think the issue isn't always necessarily that it bloodies the person coming out, but that it introduces a real degree of unpredictability. When you have a whole bunch of candidates running and splitting up the vote, unpredictable things can happen. You don't always necessarily end up with the most compelling candidate at the end of the day for the general election.

SM: No Democrats, Rob, have jumped in the race yet. One presumes they will fairly soon. But there are some names being bandied about as possibilities.

RS: Yeah, one is Mike Cooney, the lieutenant governor. And my sense is that Cooney is likely to run and that a lot of Democrats see him as the likely nominee. He comes from a political family. His grandfather was governor. He's been on the political scene for over 40 years. Worked all over Helena both in elected capacities and unelected capacities. He's worked closely with Gov. Bullock for the last three years as his lieutenant. They ran together as running mates in 2016, right. So you couldn't find someone much more experienced in state government, and beyond that is well-liked in Democratic circles. One question mark that some people have about Cooney is whether he kind of brings that fire in the belly to be at the top of the ticket. I actually saw him out on the stump last fall and thought that he had a lot more presence and was really good up on stage campaigning for the Democratic slate. But that is one thing that you hear about Cooney.

Another name that I would think would be at the top of the mind for a lot of people is Kathleen Williams, based on her run for Congress last year. I think she definitely earned another run for something. She generated a lot of enthusiasm among Democrats. She raised a lot of money. Obviously it didn't work out at the end of the day. Gianforte beat her, but it was closer than Democrats have typically fared for that seat in the post-Pat Williams era.

SM: Well you mentioned Gianforte, and it's a question mark too whether Congressman Greg Gianforte might enter the governor's race.

RS: Yeah, right. There's been speculation that he might make a second run. You know from his perspective you're looking at a choice between running for re-election to Congress, which I think has a very high probability of success, or another run for governor, which would be a lower chance of success. When he first ran for governor in 2016 he had a pretty smooth path to the GOP nomination. I don't think that would necessarily be the case this time with Fox and Stapleton already in. Although you never know; if Gianforte decides to go for governor that might push Stapleton, I would think, to look at that House seat. Probably less likely that Fox would change his plans. But in any event, Gianforte would have a tougher path to the governor's mansion than he would in holding on to his seat in Congress. But the jobs are very different and it's possible that Gianforte would rather come home and be governor than go through the constant campaigning every two years for that House seat and the travel back and forth and the tight budget relative to the senators and all of that. So it wouldn't be a stunner if Gianforte decided to come back and run for governor.

SM: Right, which would make a lot of dominoes fall. So we'll keep an eye on that for sure.

Corin, funding for infrastructure is a big issue again in this legislative session and it appears that, unlike last session, Republicans are open to using bonding or borrowing money for infrastructure projects, but only with some kind of cap on that borrowing.

Corin Cates-Carney: Right, they're basing this model they're working on on something that's in place in Utah. And it would basically outline in law what is a reasonable amount of debt Montana can take on during its current financial situation. And there have been multiple sessions in a row now when large public works projects that would have required borrowing, the state to go into debt, haven't been funded. One of those projects that often grabs headlines is the proposal to remodel Romney Hall at Montana State University. But there are more projects that some say need to get funded here: road and bridge projects. And there was a study released earlier this winter that said that much of Montana’s infrastructure was old and outdated.

SM: Well, here's how Republican Rep. Eric Moore described the proposal to put a cap on borrowing money.

"I think it's going to give the Legislature more assurance that we're not just shooting in the dark. We're going to set a target that most Montanans can agree on is a reasonable level of debt, because at the end of the day debt’s not good or evil in and of itself."

SM: And they're trying to frame this, Corin aren't they, that they're being financially prudent with this proposal?

CCC: Right, because at times the infrastructure debate gets hung up on two different things. One is, “Is borrowing a good thing for the state to do for these projects?” The other part of the argument is these specific projects they're getting funded. And what they're trying to frame this as is “We are being fiscally responsible in creating this new formula or this new model for borrowing that removes that one part of the argument out to help the infrastructure discussions in the future move forward.” And Democrats say they're willing to have that conversation, but there are some projects that need immediate funding this session. And this offer by Republicans is more of a long-term system. And it's unclear how that will actually fit in in discussions during this 90-day session.

SM: Billings Republican Rep. Rodney Garcia wants the state to borrow $500 million to buy the coal-fired plant in Colstrip. And here's how Rep. Garcia describes that proposal.

"My intention is to keep this open, running and keeping the economy strong in Montana," he said.

SM: But keeping the plant open in Colstrip is not guaranteed right now Corin, no matter who owns it.

CCC: No, much of that actually is going to be influenced by the West Coast consumers that buy much of the coal-powered electricity that the Colstrip power plant generates. And they're moving to other options. And so Garcia's bill didn't get a very warm reception during its first hearing, and that's largely because of how it approaches the situation in Colstrip. It wants to borrow $500 million to buy the power plant. Opponents say that raises a number of red flags. One is the state buying a private company and running it. Another is the possible long term-risk that Montana taxpayers could take on that could depend on the coal markets. And there's the eventual environmental cleanup costs that can be associated with the plant.

SM: The Montana Environmental Information Center is among those opposed to the state buying Colstrip’s plant, and here's the center's Anne Hedges.

"This is a terrible idea. This won't work as it's written. There are much, much better ways to help not only the community of Colstrip, but the economy of that area down there."

SM: And Corin, the state Chamber of Commerce also opposes the purchase. There were several opponents.

CCC: Right, over and over during the hearing we heard supporters and opponents say that Garcia's bill was a good start. So it sounds like people are in agreement that something needs to happen about Colstrip, but this one didn't really receive support from people who usually don't agree on these kinds of issues.

SM: Strange bedfellows on this one. Rob, coal's future, as Corin was just saying, not just in Montana but elsewhere, is a big question mark. And it seems like policymakers are playing catch-up always to the changing nature of energy markets.

RS: That's right, Sally. I mean look, back in the day coal had tremendous advantages relative to other energy sources. It was very cheap, there was lots of it and it was easy to get a hold of, which made it a reliable and stable source of energy. But over time these other sources have narrowed the gap by a lot, and in some cases overtaken coal entirely.

And then of course on top of that we've seen a major increase in the level of concern over coal's environmental impacts, especially with regard to climate change. So politically, coal has just become a much heavier lift, and it's a heavier lift everywhere. But it's especially difficult in some of the places Corin was referring to earlier: Puget Sound area of Washington, Portland in the Willamette Valley. And there is every reason to think that these trends are not only going to persist, but they're actually going to become more intense as time goes on. And for a growing number of people, that is a good thing long term. It's a necessary thing. It's a necessary change. But it's obviously devastating for workers and communities in coal country.

SM: The town of Colstrip, of course, is waiting to see exactly what happens in looking for help any place they can get it.

Corin, Gov. Bullock hopes this legislative session approves some tax hikes on cigarettes and liquor to raise revenue. But not only are Republicans generally saying “No” to that idea, they want to make it harder to pass any new or increased taxes. Here's Columbus Republican Forest Mandeville.

"There should be a high threshold when burdening our constituents with new or higher taxes."

SM: And it takes a simple majority now to approve a tax hike or new tax. But he wants to require, Corin, a two-thirds supermajority.

CCC: There hasn't been much appetite for new taxes by the Republican majority for several sessions now, and they want to make that debate even easier on their end by making it harder for any new taxes. Some states, although a minority, already require some level of supermajority in the Legislature to approve tax increases. Colorado, they can't get approved without voter support.

The Republican sponsor says that there is already too much burden on taxpayers and it should be much harder to put any more burden on them. Although the opponents to this two- thirds supermajority for new taxes say that with that high threshold comes the increased difficulty of raising money for the state which might be necessary if the state’s in a tight financial spot. And advocates for people on low incomes said placing this hurdle to raise money for the state could potentially make it harder for those people who rely on government services. And I guess for one additional piece of context, the D.C.-based Tax Foundation did a study of tax burdens by state. And they used 2012 data to report that Montana was ranked 38th in the nation for local state tax burden.

SM: And it seems unlikely that Gov. Bullock would sign something that is proposed here, but we'll see.

Rob, an MSU/MTN News post-election poll shows something we all knew, and that is that independent voters are key to winning an election in Montana — that turning out your party's base isn't enough.

RS: Yeah, exactly. There are more Republicans than Democrats in Montana, and that gives the Republicans a clear advantage. But it's not enough of an advantage that they can disregard independents. Now, back in November we saw this in the elections. Democrats Jon Tester and Kathleen Williams — they both won independents. But the difference between winning and losing is that Tester had a 27-point blowout among independents in his race against Rosendale, whereas Gianforte kept it relatively close against Williams on the House side, only losing independents by 10 percent. So the formula for Democrats to win statewide is to rack up those big margins among independents. Republicans, meanwhile, they don't have to win a majority of independents, but they have to have a respectable showing with independents.

SM: That post-election poll also shows that Gov. Bullock had a high 60-percent approval rating, but in fact all the congressional delegation also had pretty high ratings, which was interesting.

You've been listening to Capitol Talk, our weekly legislative analysis program. I'm Sally Mauk and I've been speaking with Montana Public Radio's Capitol Reporter Corin Cates-Carney and University of Montana political science professor and Mansfield Center Fellow Rob Saldin.

Retired in 2014 but still a presence at MTPR, Sally Mauk is a University of Kansas graduate and former wilderness ranger who has reported on everything from the Legislature to forest fires.
Corin Cates-Carney manages MTPR’s daily and long-term news projects. After spending more than five years living and reporting across Western and Central Montana, he became news director in early 2020.
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